Fixing safety on the fly

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s proposed operational model for its Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010 assesses carriers for fitness continually based on data updated every month, and allows for early and progressive intervention.

Imagine you have dozens of kids. There’s no way to watch them all at all times. To some extent, you must hope they are doing what they are supposed to until proven otherwise. And even when they do engage in minor misconduct, you have little choice but to ignore them until they do something that’s really bad. You just don’t have the time. So you end up pegging some kids as troublemakers and focusing your efforts on them. Meanwhile, the others don’t get much discipline for their bad habits and so become the new troublemakers.

In some ways, that’s what it’s like to be the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. On the one hand, FMCSA has limited personnel and budgets. On the other, it’s responsible for overseeing the safety of tens of thousands of motor carriers and hundreds of thousands of truck drivers. Where do you start?

A little more than 20 years ago, FMCSA took its first steps toward a systematic approach when it instituted the compliance review and the resulting safety ratings – satisfactory, conditional and unsatisfactory. For years, this process was fairly haphazard with an audit being triggered mainly by obvious worries, such as a complaint or one or more fatal accidents. In the late 1990s, FMCSA formulated SafeStat – a data-driven, performance-based algorithm used to identify potentially high-risk motor carriers.

By assigning scores based on accidents, driver and vehicle inspection history and past safety management, SafeStat helps FMCSA decide which carriers to target for compliance reviews. But today, FMCSA has the resources to audit only about 2 percent of motor carriers. So only high-risk carriers get real attention.

Then, the carrier gets lots of attention, of course. Investigators arrive for an intensive on-site look at pretty much everything. Regardless of what specific problems a carrier has, auditors follow a manual for conducting audits, guaranteeing that they are an ordeal.

You can’t assess payback of any system just by looking at resources consumed. If prospects for continued safety improvements are great, then perhaps the system isn’t broke. But that’s not what FMCSA was seeing several years ago. Since data gathering began, the fatal accident rate involving large trucks peaked in 1979 at a little more than six fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

The rate dropped steeply thereafter, reinforced by measures such as inauguration of the roadside inspection program in 1984 and the safety rating program in 1986. But as the rate approached 2 fatalities per 100 million VMT early this decade, the line has flattened.
So in August 2004, FMCSA launched its Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010 initiative with an eye to rethinking the current approach that relies heavily on resource-intensive compliance reviews.

“Although we have made great strides in safety, we still face some serious challenges,” then-FMCSA Administrator Annette Sandberg said in a September 2004 speech to the trucking associations of Ohio and West Virginia. “The number of carriers continues to increase every year – a trend that will only accelerate as the economy continues to take off.” Meanwhile, FMCSA was seeing additional demands on resources related to new entrants, security and so on.

“Therefore, we must look at every tool in our toolbox – how we use them, how we can change them, and how we can add to them,” Sandberg said.

The effort began with six listening sessions throughout the country during the fall of 2004. FMCSA followed with one listening session in November 2006. Then in a listening session last month, the agency presented an outline of the model it is testing, beginning this month. (See “Let the test begin,” right.) Ultimately, the agency wants to use the same framework to oversee drivers as well as carriers. FMCSA is asking for public comments by Jan. 31 on its efforts to date.

Forward to BASICs
Today’s regime looks broadly at data on crashes, vehicles, drivers and safety management to flag carriers as high safety risks, FMSCA doesn’t see it as very effective in helping to quickly identify specific problems.

Instead, within the next couple of years, FMCSA wants to implement a safety measurement system that monitors performance in seven specific areas, which it calls Behavioral Analysis Safety Improvement Categories, or BASICs. The BASICs, which FMCSA links to likelihood of crashes, are:

  • Unsafe driving
  • Fatigued driving
  • Driver fitness
  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Vehicle maintenance
  • Cargo securement (including hazardous materials and passengers)
  • Crash history

Data used to assess the basics will be weighted by time, severity and relevance to crash risk. FMCSA also will attempt to “normalize” the data to take into account the number of inspections and power units to counteract a statistical bias against smaller carriers.

All BASICs aren’t created equal. The first two – unsafe driving and fatigued driving – are called “stand alone” BASICs, meaning that a failing score in either one of those categories or a critical level of violations discovered during intervention will result in a proposed finding that the carrier is unfit. The carrier then would have the opportunity to address those problems and respond the way it can today if FMCSA proposes an unsatisfactory safety rating.

The other five BASICs are non-stand alone. A failing score or critical level of violations in any one of them would result in a determination that the carrier is marginal. Two or more failing scores or critical level of violations would result in a proposed unfit determination.

In addition to the BASICs, FMCSA is eyeing a number of fundamental violations, any one of which would result in a proposed determination that the carrier is unfit. (For a list of the proposed fundamental violations, see “The 15 deadly sins,” left.)

Another month, another rating
FMCSA also plans to change the way it intervenes with carriers. The agency would run the BASICs calculations every 30 days and use the results to guide its intervention. In effect, FMCSA would be assigning a preliminary rating of either “continue to operate,” “marginal” or “unfit” for each carrier – and, ultimately, each driver – every 30 days. If the data points to no problems, the carrier would retain “continue to operate” status.

If the monthly update exposes problems, carriers would receive progressive intervention as follows:

  • Warning letter
  • Targeted roadside inspection
  • Off-site investigation
  • On-site investigation
  • Cooperative safety plan
  • Notice of violation
  • Notice of claim
  • Settlement agreement
  • Unfit – suspension

This process looks very much like today’s regime, but one of the biggest differences is the notion of off-site investigation. Assuming that the BASICs provide a more precise roadmap to a carrier’s safety shortcomings than today’s safety evaluation areas under SafeStat, FMCSA personnel and agents could intervene by telephone, for example, and ask for more information in a specific area, such as logs or drug testing. In theory, FMCSA could intervene surgically and correct a deficiency before that problem grew larger.

Intervention won’t necessarily start with just a warning letter, however. If severe problems arise based on the latest 30-day data review, FMCSA might go right to an on-site investigation, for example. And the agency isn’t planning to rely on deficiencies in BASICs alone in deciding whether to intervene. As today, high crash indicators, fatal crashes or complaints could trigger intervention. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a full-blown on-site compliance review.

It’s all about the data
FMCSA acknowledges that its proposed new approach to safety oversight depends squarely on quality data – data that is timelier, more reliable and more tightly analyzed than is the case today in SafeStat. In a Dec. 4 listening session in Arlington, Texas, regarding CSA 2010, many participants approved of FMCSA’s plans in concept but emphasized that such extensive reliance on data collection and analysis poses challenges.

FMCSA already had anticipated one of the biggest concerns: Fairly analyzing crash history. Top FMCSA officials are insisting on a mechanism for determining whether a carrier should be held accountable for specific crashes. “That’s a challenge,” concedes William Mahoney, assistant program manager for CSA 2010.

Indeed, the question of crash accountability is an ongoing frustration. Several years ago, then-FMCSA Administrator Joseph Clapp pledged that the agency would develop a mechanism for excluding nonpreventable crashes from the SafeStat algorithm upfront. Several months later he recanted, saying that the agency simply didn’t have the resources to do it. But FMCSA does allow carriers to challenge crashes during the course of a compliance review. And it has provided a tool, DataQs (https://dataqs.fmcsa.dot.gov), for carriers to correct their safety data.

Several participants in the listening session said the challenge is bigger than just determining whether a crash was preventable or nonpreventable, however. One pointed out that FMCSA’s model needs to account for differences in the carrier’s operational profile. Trips in the congested Northeast pose greater risks of crashes than those in the Midwest and West, for example.

Another concern for some carriers is the frequency with which carriers’ status could change among “continue to operate,” “marginal” and “unfit.” Many shippers require their carriers to have satisfactory safety ratings. Under today’s system, a carrier has ample notice that it faces a change from satisfactory to conditional. Under the new system, that could change in a matter of 30 days. This could be a problem for carriers that are contractually bound by their shippers to maintain the equivalent of a satisfactory rating. However, carriers still would have full due process rights for responding to findings that they are unfit. As FMCSA moves into assessing individual drivers, questions of privacy and due process become even more critical.

Most of what FMCSA wants to do will require changes in today’s regulations. The agency hopes to launch a rulemaking on its CSA 2010 initiative this spring or summer. And elements in the initiative – some of the driver-related aspects, for example – would require or work better if FMCSA had additional legislative authority, which it plans to request as part of the next highway authorization in 2009.

  • For more information on the CSA 2010 initiative and on how to provide input, go to www.fmcsa.dot.gov/csa2010.
  • For notices and comments filed in the docket – including an explanation of CSA 2010 elements published Nov. 2 – go to www.regulations.gov and search for FMCSA-2004-18898. Comments are due Jan. 31.

Let the test begin
FMCSA launches four-state trial of CSA 2010 concepts

Tentatively beginning this month, most carriers based in four U.S. states – Colorado, Georgia, Missouri and New Jersey – will help the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration test its Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010 test model. FMCSA will randomly select carriers as either test subjects or members of the control group. In Phase I, FMCSA will exclude from the operational model test those carriers that have had compliance reviews within the past 18 months or those that are currently high risk (Category A or B).

Carriers in the control group will see no change in FMCSA’s oversight. But for the carriers selected for the operational test, FMCSA will try out its Behavioral Analysis Safety Improvement Categories (BASICs) approach – focusing initially on unsafe and fatigued driving – and its notion of data-driven, progressive intervention.

The operational test doesn’t involve any kind of regulatory relief, and FMCSA is not telling carriers in advance that they have been selected as test subjects. In fact, trucking operations without any serious safety problems might never even know they were test subjects.

FMCSA’s goal is to validate its CSA 2010 measurement system, test its intervention process and evaluate its effectiveness. The agency plans to review actual safety performance of the test and control groups to see whether progressive intervention on specific safety behaviors could be more effective in reducing crashes than the current system that relies principally on on-site compliance reviews of carriers already deemed to be high risk.


The deadly 15 sins
FMCSA eyes establishing fundamental violations

In general, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s planned new approach to safety oversight relies on measuring and monitoring performance in seven specific areas called Behavioral Analysis Safety Improvement Categories, or BASICs. But the agency has proposed 15 specific violations that would trump the BASICs and place a carrier immediately into an unfit status. The 15 fundamental violations and their regulatory citations are:

  1. Failing to implement an alcohol and/or controlled substance testing program (Sec. 382.115(a) or (b)).
  2. Using a driver who has refused to submit to an
    alcohol or controlled substances test required under part 382 (Sec. 382.211).
  3. Using a driver known to have tested positive for a controlled substance (Sec. 382.215).
  4. Knowingly allowing, requiring, permitting or authorizing an employee with a commercial driver’s license that is suspended, revoked or canceled by a state, or who is disqualified to operate a commercial motor vehicle as defined in Part 383 (Sec. 383.37(a)).
  5. Knowingly allowing, requiring, permitting or authorizing a driver who is disqualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle (Sec. 383.51(a)).
  6. Operating a motor vehicle transporting property without having in effect the required minimum levels of financial responsibility coverage (Sec. 387.7(a)).
  7. Using a disqualified driver (Sec. 391.15(a)).
  8. Using a physically unqualified driver (Sec. 391.11(b)(4)).
  9. Failing to require a driver
    to make a record-of-duty status (Sec. 395.8(a)) (Complete lack of any records-of-duty status).
  10. Requiring or permitting the operation of a motor vehicle declared “out of service” before repairs are made (Sec.396.9(c)(2)).
  11. Using a commercial motor vehicle not periodically inspected (Sec. 396.17(a)). (Complete lack of any periodic inspections).
  12. Operating a passenger-carrying vehicle without having in effect the required minimum levels of financial responsibility (Sec. 387.31(a)).
  13. Failing to implement a random controlled substances and/or an alcohol testing program (Sec. 382.305).
  14. Failing to correct out-of-service defects listed by a driver in a driver vehicle inspection report before the vehicle is operated again (Sec. 396.11(c)).
  15. Transporting a forbidden material (Sec. 177.801).

SafeStat vs. CSA 2010
SafeStat MEASUREMENT SYSTEM CSA 2010 SAFETY
Organized in general areas (4 SEAs) Organized by behaviors (BASICs plus crash)
Identifies carriers for one-size-fits-all compliance review Identifies safety problems in the same structure that CSA 2010 fixes the problems (by BASICs)
Uses only OOS and moving violations from inspections Uses all safety-based inspection violations
No direct impact on safety rating May impact safety fitness determination
No risk-based violation weightings Risk-based violation weightings
Assesses carriers only Assesses carriers and drivers